What do Pioneers, Native Americans, a strange stick figure called Sparkie, Little bear Cubs, and Scripture memorization have in common?

AWANA!—at least if you grew up in some churches in the early to late 90s. 

AWANA indelibly shaped my experience of church and early Christian formation. Every Wednesday night, I would get walloped by dodgeballs, compete in inexplicable games, and spew out Scripture verses to win pins, patches, and prizes.

AWANA: A Good Goal, a Problematic Method

The goal of AWANA was to help me grow in my knowledge and love of God through memorizing Scripture. Scripture memorization is good. God wouldn’t have told the Israelites to teach their children the Shema and the Law arbitrarily (Deuteronomy 6:4-7). God created us for communion with Him. Interiorizing and living out his Word, presence, and will for our lives is a part of this fellowship, and Scripture memorization is a helpful aid to that end. 

But AWANA surrounded Scripture memorization with a medium and a method that, at least in my experience, detracted from its intended end goal. Impulsive avoidance of Scripture memorization was not the end goal, but until recently, that is where I’ve found myself. 

Now, on one level, my aversion can be chalked up to a mix of pride and shame. My pride says, “I don’t need to memorize Scripture.” My shame pipes in, “I’ll never be good enough at it, so why bother?” On another level, my avoidance is related to how I learned to memorize Scripture in AWANA.  

AWANA gamified, commodified, and made Scripture memorization an outcome of a competition. It implicitly taught that the end goal of scripture memorization is not communion with God followed by joyful obedience but rewards and winning.

Now, someone might want to object that all Scripture memorization is good, even if AWANA isn’t the best way of doing it. Perhaps. But what do we mean by good?  I did not retain much, if any, of those verses that I memorized. I remember the rewards and games more than the Scriptures to which those rewards and competitions pointed. I grant that good can come from AWANA—I wouldn’t be writing this article if I hadn’t been formed, in some way, by the Scripture I competed to memorize—but what if there is a better way?

I’ve been tempted to throw out Scripture memorization and just attend to other spiritual practice, but I’ve discovered three things in recent years:

  1. I can’t ignore the good of Scripture memorization because of how I learned the habit.
  2. The practice of Scripture memorization can be relearned and reoriented towards its proper goal.
  3. I’ve relearned the habit of memorizing Scripture through praying the Daily Office with my family.  

One thing that opened my eyes to the positive possibilities of memorizing Scripture is a distinction that my wife came across in an article in Christianity Today.  

Autobiographical vs. Semantic Memory

In her article “The Best Way to Memorize Scripture Has Little to do with Learning Words,” K.J. Ramsey argues that memory is a complex reality. We don’t just remember things like a movie. The relationships, experiences, and places we memorize affect how well and to what end we remember. She identifies two ways our memory works: autobiographical and semantic memory.  

  • Autobiographical memory is a kind of ‘heart knowledge’ shaped by our experience, relationship, and emotions. 
  • Semantic memory is merely memorizing words. 

Think about learning to cook your favorite cookies with grandma versus cramming for a test.

Autobiographical memory is how we should want to memorize Scriptures, but semantic is how we’ve often approached it. If you’ve ever sat down to white-knuckle Scripture memorization, you’ve experienced semantic memory.

Ramsey shows us that memorizing Scripture is good, but where, how, with who, and why we do it affects our ability to remember Scripture.  I realized that my experience in AWANA was primarily semantic memory. Sure, there was a community, a common faith, mentors, and teaching. But when it came to memorizing Scripture, it was just me trying to earn a reward and get the words out of my mouth before they slipped through the slats of my semantic memory.

Ramsey’s article named what my family and I had been doing for the last year: We’ve created autobiographical memories of Scripture by doing the Daily Office in the Book of Common Prayer 2019. The Daily Office can provide a context, community, and space to memorize Scripture for its proper end goal: fellowship and communion with God.

I am not suggesting that we must use the Book of Common Prayer to memorize Scripture. However, I believe that the Scripture ordered for worship in the Book of Common Prayer provides a fantastic resource and context for memorizing Scripture both implicitly and explicitly.

What do I mean by implicitly and explicitly?

  1. Implicit memorization occurs through the simple repetition and use of something. I’ve been on a homemade Caesar salad dressing kick, and I’ve memorized the recipe, not purposefully, but just by using it over and over.
  2. Explicit memorization is purposeful. I purposefully memorize and continue to remember my Social Security Number.

Explicit memorization can easily fall into semantic memory, but I don’t think it necessarily has to. Implicitly memorizing Scripture with the Daily Office has helped me want to explicitly memorize Scripture with the Daily Office. Let me explain.

The Daily Office as a Context for Scripture Memorization

In the Anglican Daily Office Tradition, there are two primary daily services:

  • Morning Prayer: (2019 BCP, pg. 11-31) and
  • Evening Prayer (pg. 41-56);

and two minor services:

  • Midday Prayer (pg. 33-39) and
  • Compline (57-65).

There are also shorter versions of each of these services called Family Devotions (pg. 67-74). These are particularly good for just getting started with the Daily Office or getting children involved.  

There are opening Scripture verses, psalms, canticles, and The Lord’s Prayer each service. If you do these services for a while, you will find yourself implicitly memorizing hefty portions of Scripture, especially if you do them in the context of friends or family.

It is helpful to note that there is a whole selection of opening sentences connected to the church calendar (pg. 27-29; 54-56) and an excellent selection of Canticles (79-88). Finding these opened my eyes to the variety of Scriptures we could memorize as a family. It also helped me recontextualize Scripture memorization away from competition and towards the Life of Christ lived in the Church Calendar. As I’ve implicitly memorized Scripture through the Daily Office, I’ve discovered a new desire to explicitly memorize passages of Scripture that guide us through the life of Christ in the Church Calendar. To see how this works, here is a bit of our journey.

Memorizing Scripture with the Daily Office: Our Story

We’ve been participating in the Daily Office as a family for a couple of years now. We started with the shorter Family Devotions. But we’ve slowly expanded as our oldest has memorized more and more. Here is what a weekday looks like:

I get up before the girls and do Morning Prayer before I go to work. My wife and the girls do Morning Prayer later together. Recently we’ve started using the opening sentence for the liturgical season we are in as our memory verse. I join them for Morning Prayer on my days off. 

In the evening, we do the Family Devotion of evening prayer and add the opening Scripture verse for the season. It takes us about 20–30 minutes a day to do all of these prayers together. It is in this context that we are memorizing Scripture.

I began to realize what the habit of the Daily Office was doing in our family when our three-year-old daughter started saying the Song of Zechariah (pg. 19-20), The General Thanksgiving (pg. 25), and the Lord’s Prayer (pg. 21) without prompting. It helps that we listen to some music by Liturgical Folk and Rain for Roots that directly connect to these three prayers. The music and the daily prayers mutually encouraged her to memorize these prayers.

As an aside, my daughter is fantastic, but I don’t think that her memorization of Scripture in this way requires any kind of unique memory gifts. I believe that what she is doing is unremarkable, ordinary, and oh so beautiful and good. She is a sponge, and she is soaking up the Word of God. Of course, there are days where she doesn’t want to say the prayers or Scripture verses, and we do them anyways, as a family, not for a test, not to compete, but simply for the good of knowing and loving God as a family together.

I had an epiphany as I saw this all happening: memorizing Scripture doesn’t have to be a competition. So, we started memorizing the Scripture passages assigned for the opening sentences of Morning and Evening prayer and the short passages of Scripture in the Family Devotions. In 2020, we memorized Philippians 4:6-7 simply by saying it every night. Soon enough, our three-year-old was just saying those verses at random points in the day.

We started memorizing the opening sentence of Morning and Evening Prayer in Advent 2020. We call these verses the “Advent verse” or the “Epiphany verse” as well as our memory verse. We do this consciously to connect our memorization of Scripture to the Church Calendar and the life of Christ.

We are also memorizing these passages together. There is nothing quite as beautifully humbling as asking your three-year-old daughter to help you with a verse she already has down pat. I invite her to help me and teach me the verse we are working on as a family.  

I never would’ve reapproached Scripture memorization without the Daily Office and my family. It might be too much to say that if you want to learn to memorize Scripture, you should have children and do the Daily Office with them, but it isn’t too far from the truth. Of course, that isn’t an option or calling for everyone, so I would say that if you want to memorize Scripture, start praying the Daily Office and find others to do it with you in community.

Concluding Thoughts:

Scripture memorization is not the zenith of Christian maturity. However, Scripture memorization is a discipline derived from the core disciplines of daily prayer, Scripture reading, and worship through Word and Sacrament. It is a helpful support to living in Christ because it binds our hearts, minds, and lives to the living Word of God.

Perhaps you are like me, and you have an aversion to memorizing Scripture. Let me encourage you that it doesn’t have to be hard labor or a competition. It can be natural if we are humble and submit ourselves to the daily practice of the Daily Office and the reading of Scripture.

Some of you might be thinking, “I want to memorize Scripture in the Daily Office, but I feel alone in this desire.” Please hear that you are not alone. Jesus Christ prays in you and for you. Whenever you pray, you are joining the prayers of the saints past and present. We need each other to pray and memorize Scripture. It’s not a competition. It’s communion.